Monday, August 13, 2007

Science debates and dollars

A creationist paradigm for global warming

Debra Saunders writes a political column for the San Francisco Chronicle. When she tries to write about science, she can't help but look at it through her astigmatic political lens. This is the Bush era of national science policy—an era in which science fact is always interpreted by its reflection in a right-wing fun-house mirror. Saunders knows very little about science, so it's not surprising that she comes to grief, ending up as yet one more apologist for the climate-change denialists.

Public science policy will inevitably have a political component, but you can't judge the politics very well when the scientific method is an utter mystery to you. Unaware of her ignorance, Saunders charges bravely into the fray. She took up cudgels on behalf of the global-warming doubters in her latest column:
Paralyzing fog of certainty on climate

Debra J. Saunders

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Newsweek's global-warming cover story purports to reveal the “well-coordinated, well-funded campaign by contrarian scientists, free-market think tanks and industry” which for the last two decades “has created a paralyzing fog of doubt around climate change.” It's the same story run repeatedly in mainstream media: the overwhelming majority of scientists believe the debate on global warming is over—but if there are any dissenting scientists left, they've been bought.

Here's the rub: If dissent is so rare, why do global-warming conformists feel the strong need to argue that minority views should be dismissed as nutty or venal? Why not posit that there is such a thing as honest disagreement on the science?

As for the overwhelming majority of scientists believing that man is behind global warming, former NASA scientist Roy Spencer, now at the University of Alabama, told me, “It's like an urban legend. There has never been any kind of vote on this issue.” He referred me to a 2003 survey in which two German environmental scientists asked more than 530 climate scientists from 27 countries if they thought humans caused climate change: 56 percent answered yes, 30 percent said no.
Oh, good. Roy Spencer. He has genuine credentials as a climatologist. That's probably why he's preferentially quoted by denialists. There are so few who continue to try to explain away the impact of human activity on global climate. Spencer is even one of the point men (and the only actual climate scientist) in the D. James Kennedy video that attacks global warming as a myth promulgated by radical environmentalists. A bit ironically, Spencer is quoted in that video complaining about the lack of scientific credentials among those who express opinions about climate change.

It's interesting that Spencer offers up the 2003 poll of environmental scientists in support of his skepticism. Did Saunders actually read the original paper by Dennis Bray and Hans von Storch, or did she rely on the widely distributed summary article by Joseph Bast and James M. Taylor? Although published by the Heartland Institute, a notable dissenter from the consensus on climate change (they even cite Sen. James Inhofe favorably), the selective report by Bast and Taylor is less than a body blow against that consensus. The denialists have had to throw in the towel on the fact of global warming itself. Bast & Taylor report that by 2003 the fraction of environmental scientists who agreed that the earth was heating up had risen to 82%. (Bast & Taylor say, “Whether or not some warming has occurred was a matter of controversy during the 1980s and 1990s....”)

The denialists have had to retrench by retreating to the position that warming may be a fact, but humans had little or nothing to do with it. As Saunders noted, the Bast & Taylor article reported that nearly 56% of environmental scientists agreed in 2003 that humans have a significant responsibility in causing global warming. One can be forgiven for wondering about the trend line: Are the scientists converging in their opinions?

The environmental scientists surveyed by Bray and von Storch show increasing agreement—a consensus, as it were—that human activity is the culprit in global warming. Bray and von Storch asked, “To what extent do you agree or disagree that climate change is mostly the result of anthropogenic causes?” On a Leikert scale ranging from 1 (strongest agreement) to 7 (strongest disagreement), the mean response of scientists in the United States dropped between 1996 to 2003 from a mean response slightly on the disagreement side of neutral (4.22) to a mean response slightly on the agreement side of neutral (3.86). German scientists, however, dropped nearly a full point in their mean response, moving from 4.13 (very slight disagreement) in 1996 to 3.07 (significant agreement) in 2003. What's more, the box-and-whisker plots from the published survey (where the boxes represent the middle fifty percent of respondents) show that by 2003 three-quarters of German scientists were at 4 or below in their responses. United States scientists did not move as significantly, but their trend toward greater agreement is also evident in the dropping of the box plot for 2003 (and the lowering of the median bar that indicates the 50th percentile).

And that was back in 2003 in a survey whose harshest critics suggest was biased toward deniers of climate change. Bray and von Storch are preparing a new survey, in part in hopes of responding to concerns raised by critics of their 1996 and 2003 efforts, but also to demonstrate whether the growing consensus on anthropogenic climate change—which they acknowledge—is continuing.

By both temperament and publication format, Debra Saunders is unlikely to plumb the details of what environmental scientists believe about global warming. Her job as a political columnist is to discuss the politics of it all. Given her conservative bent, she finds one more credentialed doubter of climate change (that's getting harder to do) and mutters darkly about money-grubbing academics.
What really frosts me about the Newsweek story is that it concentrates on industry funding for skeptics, while ignoring the money that pours into pro-global-warming coffers. That focus ignores where the big grant money goes—to pay for crisis-mongering research. Or as Reid Bryson, the father of scientific climatology, told the (Madison, Wis.) Capital Times, “If you want to be an eminent scientist, you have to have a lot of grad students and a lot of grants. You can't get grants unless you say, ‘Oh global warming, yes, yes, carbon dioxide.’”
I've heard that those who claim HIV has no role in AIDS are having trouble getting funds for their research, too. I suppose we could segue to a rant by Peter Duesberg, who has plenty of credentials and no support from his colleagues as he wends his lonely way into crackpottery. Research funding is often mediated by peer-review committees, so it's not surprising that you can't get funding when your peers think you've wandered too far into the wilderness.

By the way, though history shows some people had doubts about Galileo, or Darwin, or Einstein, it doesn't mean you're the next Galileo, Darwin, or Einstein because people have doubts about you. Keep that in mind.

Back to Saunders. She does admit that industry has been generous in pouring money into friendly “research.” Just as the Tobacco Institute blew smoke into people's eyes for decades, the big players in the energy industry figure they can continue their business unmolested as long as they kick up enough doubt.
That's not to say that industry does not liberally fund political efforts. Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope told me, “If you look at the cumulative public relations weight of those who don't want action on climate change, such as the think tanks and trade associations, it vastly dwarfs what has been spent on the side of those who want action.”

Pope cited American automakers' fight against tougher fuel-efficiency standards. Also, the campaign to defeat Proposition 87, the 2006 California ballot measure to tax oil production in order to fund alternative-fuel development, outspent Prop. 87 proponents by 2 to 1.

Newsweek leads with the revelation that a conservative think tank that had been funded by ExxonMobil offered scientists “$10,000 to write articles undercutting” a U.N. International Panel on Climate Change report that there is a 90 percent chance global warming is due to the burning of fossil fuels.

Ooooooh, $10,000. After the billions that have gone into pro-global-warming research, that's (pardon the pun) rich.

What critics call a $10,000 “bounty” could be seen in the research community as the equivalent of a 25-cent tip. As Steven Hayward, fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, explained, his think tank was “asking very busy and prominent people to wade through as much as 5,000 pages of material and write original papers on it, and people think they're going to do that for free?”
Say, are you a scientist? Do you see a $10,000 stipend for writing a paper the same thing as a 25-cent tip? Saunders is displaying her utter ignorance about science again, never more than in this passage.

Sure, you could lose $10,000 in the petty cash drawer of a major multi-million-dollar research project (but look for for questions from the auditor later). This is not what we're talking about. Paging through a stack of papers (yeah, even 5,000 pages of research) and writing a survey article or report is not a herculean undertaking. You scan the abstracts and pick out the key items as you work through the pile. If you're on a mission to question the aggregate results, you can pick out caveats and qualifications with which all research papers are generously provided. Easy! Then the $10,000 stipend goes directly into your own pocket, not into the budget of a research program. Yeah, it's cream floating on the surface. Just for you.

I guess Saunders thinks that $10,000 is not a nice bit of change for a research scientist. I'm not in the research community at present, so I confess my ignorance. Maybe I should ask some of the people I know in the local universities. They can tell me if they are so richly compensated that ten thousand dollars for a book report would be a negligible increment in their income.

Saunders hastens to defend Spencer from charges of being the kept scientist of the energy business. Frankly, I have no doubt of Spencer's sincerity. He's been at it for a long time. There is also no doubt that Spencer's position as a climate-change skeptic is increasingly isolated. He sticks with his old position even as it becomes less and less tenable.
Spencer told me he had been writing on global warming for years before he started writing for TCS Daily, which received ExxonMobil money, three years ago. He said, TCS Daily now provides some 5 percent of his income. And: “All I was doing was being paid for writing things I believed in anyway.”

Global warming guru James Hansen, a NASA scientist, received $250,000 from a foundation run by Teresa Heinz Kerry. Hansen endorsed John Kerry for president in 2004. But I wouldn't dream of suggesting Hansen was bought.

The science doesn't follow the money, the money follows the scientist. If you're a researcher on either side of the issue, eventually you'll get money from that side—or be unemployed.

I guess all skeptics are supposed to work for free.
It's a nice bit of snark, but I have no big issue with Saunders on this. What does bother me, however, is that she moves on to a new level of scientific ignorance as she endorses treating science as a topic for debating societies. Just as creationists like to use their rhetorical skills to embarrass biologists in debate-format presentations, some global-warming skeptics want to score points by working the emotions of lay audiences. Maybe we could settle some sticky scientific points with a verbal brawl.
True believers appear to be afraid of a fair fight. In March, when the audience was polled before a New York “Intelligence Squared U.S.” debate, 30 percent agreed with the motion that global warming is not a crisis, 57 percent disagreed. After the debate, 46 percent agreed with the motion, while 42 percent disagreed.

After all the Newsweek-like stories announcing the debate is over, it took one debate to flip the audience. No wonder they want to muzzle dissent.
All this proves is that the debaters from the denialist camp were more effective than the debaters who reflected the growing scientific consensus. And why wouldn't they be more effective? Science is remarkably ill-suited to the point-scoring format of a debate. Any reputable scientist begins by embracing the grave handicap of uncertainty. Certainty is for zealots alone. Even the most concerned environmental scientist would leaven his or her urgent warnings with an asterisk. The moment you concede a 10% probability of being entirely wrong, your opponent cheerfully denounces you by decrying the foolishness of taking major action despite a one-in-ten possibility of doing it all for naught. The hole in your argument is there from the beginning. The opponent merely needs to jam his fingers into it and tug it wider, enlarging the uncertainty in the minds of the observers. A audience gets nervous in the face of uncertainty and swings into the skeptical column. Big surprise.

This tactic works for creationists, who flaunt their certainty in the face of the nuances of genuine science. Why shouldn't it work for those who prefer that we do nothing about climate change?

Debra Saunders will help them make it work.

1 comment:

Jeff M. said...

I read Jared Diamond's book "Collapse" a few months ago, and one of the shrewd observations he made about societies that succumb to enviro-collapse is that their elite are too sheltered from the problems going on in the society, so they don't see them before it is too late to do anything about them.

This seems like America's syndrome right now. We're the elite of the globe, but we're so sheltered from the world's problems that we don't feel any noblesse oblige. We feel that we will always be safe in our Mayberry Eden no matter what's happening outside. And our elites, on the whole, encourage this attitude in the American people. Are they even more cacooned in unreality and ignorance than Joe Sixpack? Or are they just cynically gaming the system while the fun lasts? In other words, our elites seem like Bush, on the one hand, or Cheney, on the other.